Why ‘how faith groups feel about abortion’ could be the wrong question
About one-third of U.S. adults say religion played a ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ important role in shaping their abortion views, according to Pew Research Center
This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.
When news broke last week that Politico had obtained a leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion showing that Roe v. Wade may soon be overturned, my brain went into reporter mode. I began brainstorming a list of related stories I could write, including some quick hits featuring survey data on abortion.
At the top of that list was an overview of how members of major faith groups feel about abortion rights. I figured such a story would be easy to write and would perform well in terms of page views.
After spending the first half of the week helping with the Deseret News’ initial round of coverage about the leak, I carved out some time Wednesday to dig into the data. And as if by magic, I got an email from Pew Research Center that day saying it had a large new survey on abortion it was about to release.
That afternoon, I received a prepublication copy of the report and started reading it right away. Sure enough, it included a section on religious groups and a graph showing the share of Protestants, Catholics and “nones” that hold various abortion views.
But Pew’s report also included a religion section I hadn’t expected, one that stopped me in my tracks. Researchers wrote that while most white evangelicals cite their faith as an important influence on their opinion, the same is not true for many other people of faith.
“Catholics are significantly less likely to say religion is important in shaping their views: 41% say it is important, including 21% who say it is extremely important. And white non-evangelical Protestants are even less inclined to link religion with their opinions on abortion,” the report said.
In other words, many Catholics and mainline Protestants look to other sources, including their political party or social network, for answers on the abortion debate. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same is true for religiously unaffiliated Americans; just 7% of the nones say religion plays a “very” or “extremely” important role in shaping their abortion views.
These findings show that a denomination-by-denomination breakdown of abortion data is less helpful than it might, at first, appear to be. Sure, it provides a baseline for a discussion, but it doesn’t capture the full complexity of religion’s role in the abortion debate.
For some people of faith, religious teachings really are the primary reason they oppose or support abortion rights. But for many others, religion is a sort of red herring leading people to make misguided assumptions about how they feel.
In the end, I decided to skip my original article idea and take my story on Pew’s new survey in a different direction. I wrote about the underdiscussed middle ground in the abortion debate and why labels like “anti-abortion” can be misleading. I hope I captured at least a bit of the nuance revealed in the report.
But in case you’re still curious (and I don’t blame you if you are) I’ve rounded up the results for religious groups below. Here’s what Pew discovered about Protestants, Catholics and the nones:
- White evangelical Protestants stand out for their opposition to abortion rights. Just 24% of members of this faith group say abortion should be legal in all cases (5%) or mostly legal (19%).
- Although the Catholic Church is associated with anti-abortion advocacy, the people in its pews have mixed views on the procedure. Fifty-six percent of Catholics say abortion should be legal or mostly legal, while just 10% say it should be illegal in all cases.
- The religiously unaffiliated — a group that includes atheists, agnostics and those who describe themselves as “nothing in particular” — are the most supportive of abortion. More than one-third of religious “nones” say abortion should be legal in all cases and an additional 51% say it should be mostly legal.
For a deeper look at religion’s role in the abortion debate, check out my 2019 story on the topic featuring comments from a range of faith leaders and scholars.
Fresh off the press
- The underdiscussed middle ground in the abortion debate
- As some rallied over Roe v. Wade, these Christians prayed
- Report suggests Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade
Term of the week: Cross-pressured
Tucked within Pew’s new report was a term I’d never encountered before: cross-pressured. It refers to a situation in which someone simultaneously holds two or more opinions that seem to be in tension.
Pew’s team argued that “cross-pressured” is a good way to describe many people’s views on abortion, since abortion rights supporters typically also support a variety of limits on the procedure and opponents typically oppose a complete ban.
“Relatively few Americans on either side of the debate take an absolutist view on the legality of abortion — either supporting it or opposing it at all times, regardless of circumstances,” the report said.
What I’m reading ...
Ever since Politico released a leaked draft of what could become the majority opinion in the Supreme Court’s abortion case, I’ve been wondering where they got it. Did a conservative clerk share the draft to pressure the original majority to stick together? Or did it come from the liberal side with a goal of shaking things up? Tom Goldstein analyzed the situation for SCOTUSblog and shared a compelling overview of what we know so far.
If the Supreme Court really does overturn Roe v. Wade, the ruling could disrupt the political landscape. Faith groups that have long-partnered with the Republican Party to oppose abortion rights might form new partnerships with Democrats to expand the social safety net. In his Religion News Service column, the Rev. Thomas Reese urges Catholic leaders to consider such a switch and “divorce” the GOP once and for all.
My friend Mitchell Atencio, an editor for Sojourners magazine, recently wrote a lovely essay about what Twitter means to him.
Odds and ends
I was a panelist for a virtual event last Thursday on religion, abortion and Roe v. Wade. Please watch the recording of the discussion and let me know what you think!
Looking for a staycation idea? Try visiting every church in your town.